The groundwork for this year's Pismo Beach City Council race was laid more than a year ago when the council, after an eight-hour hearing, took actions to set guidelines for development outside the city's borders in Price Canyon.
The council later rescinded its actions and didn’t approve other documents needed for a massive hotel and residential project called Spanish Springs to move forward.
But the proposed development and what opponents saw as the council's willingness to push ahead in the face of significant resistance from some residents set the stage for the election.
Now, the race for two council seats pits two longtime incumbents — Mary Ann Reiss (18 years) and Kris Vardas (8 years) — against two newcomers, Sheila Blake and Marcia Guthrie.
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Both Blake, a retired airline supervisor, and Guthrie, a self-employed real-estate agent, are members of Save Price Canyon, a group that formed during the months-long debate over Spanish Springs.
For the mayoral seat, two-term mayor Shelly Higginbotham is running to keep her spot against challenger Kevin Kreowski, a former Border Patrol agent-turned-art gallery owner in Shell Beach who said he’s critical of urban sprawl in Price Canyon.
Of course, there are plenty of other issues in Pismo Beach, a city dependent on tourism dollars for a large chunk of its budget: Downtown revitalization. Parking. Street improvements. Undergrounding utilities. Affordable housing. Water.
Financially, Pismo Beach is in better shape than many other cities. Future council members will be tasked to retain that secure financial footing while also funneling money to long-term and ongoing projects to beautify the city and attract even more visitors while catering more to the wishes of its year-round residents.
Price Canyon debate
Spanish Springs proposed building hundreds of homes, a 150-room hotel, a 10,000-square-foot conference center and a nine-hole golf course in Price Canyon.
At a June 2013 meeting on the proposed project, the council approved an environmental impact report and some amendments to the city’s general plan. Soon after, some residents started gathering petition signatures to force the council to either rescind its vote on the general plan amendments or put the issue before voters.
The council voted the following September to rescind its vote on the general plan amendments.
“In the end, based on feedback, the council did not approve the project over a multitude of concerns,” Vardas said during a candidate forum last week that was sponsored by the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce and moderated by the county’s League of Women Voters. “We did not proceed with reckless development.”
Added Reiss: “We did consider whether it would be a good thing for the city or not. It was not approved.”
The challengers, however, remember the situation differently.
“We had to force this council to take their vote back with a referendum,” Blake said at the Sept. 11 forum.
“The City Council went full steam ahead and ignored critical water reports,” Guthrie said. “I expect as soon as this election is over, if they are elected, it will be full steam ahead in Price Canyon.”
Higginbotham disagreed with that statement in a subsequent interview and said the council did its job by considering an application submitted to the city.
This past spring, Spanish Springs opponents, including Blake and Guthrie, gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the Nov. 4 ballot that would limit the types of development that could occur on four parcels of land in Price Canyon, outside Pismo Beach.
All three challengers — Blake, Guthrie and Kreowski — said they support Measure H, which would create a new land-use designation for the Price Canyon area to allow dry farming, grazing, parks, trails, schools, public buildings and limited residential development. The land-use rules would only apply to projects annexing into the city of Pismo Beach.
Vardas was alone among the three incumbents to say he, too, supports Measure H.
As a council member, Vardas said, he tried his best to come up with a process for the project that would be in the city’s best interest.
“As a citizen, I hope it passes,” he added in a phone interview. “I enjoy my private views of Price Canyon and would like to see it stay open space.”
Opponents to the measure argue that Measure H could lead to scattered development, make it difficult for the city to complete regional hiking and biking trails along Pismo Creek, and would burden city services, such as fire and police.
Higginbotham said she’s opposed to it. “I am concerned there may be unintended consequences,” she said, referring to the measure’s provisions on Pismo Creek and endangered species.
Reiss said she isn’t taking a position. “It’s up to the community to vote how they see fit,” she said. “I ask each person read it carefully, get as much information as to what it will and won't do for the community in the long run.”
Other issues: water, downtown
When asked why they’re running, the three incumbents pointed to some accomplishments: maintaining a balanced budget, especially during the Great Recession; improving ocean water quality through efforts to control the number of pigeons roosting on the pier; building the city’s first low-income housing project; and raising the level of discourse and cooperation on the council.
“I don’t understand why there’s a movement to need change because we have done well,” Higginbotham said. “We were able to get the city through this terrible recession without cutting services. We’re getting the projects done. We are working toward additional water sources. We have a top-notch police department. We have money in the bank and reserves.”
The three challengers, meanwhile, said there should be more citizen involvement in the process and the current council has not represented the desires of some constituents.
“I think it's time for leadership and someone who will listen, and that's me,” said Kreowski, who is challenging Higginbotham for the two-year mayoral seat.
Guthrie said she’ll represent the interests of grass-roots citizens. Blake said she’s running to give voters a choice.
At last week’s forum, the candidates listed some of their top priorities: bluff protection, downtown revitalization, and upkeep of streets and infrastructure. Vardas said his top priority is “to control growth and protect the environment.”
Blake, Guthrie, Higginbotham and Kreowski all listed water as one of their top concerns.
Pismo Beach relies on three water sources: Lopez Lake, state water and groundwater. Mandatory water-use restrictions were put in place in February; in July, the council declared a “severely restricted water supply condition.”
Guthrie is particularly concerned about preserving water supplies for current residents.
“I think our communication with citizens should be a more frank discussion about what water we actually have,” Guthrie said. “I am concerned about continued development and will we be able to supply water.”
Blake said the city needs to recapture treated wastewater that now is dumped into the ocean.
Reiss said the city is studying how to convert its wastewater treatment plant into a tertiary treatment facility.
Higginbotham pointed to conservation measures enacted by the council and said she hopes the city can increase its water supply through groundwater recharge or rainwater storage.
Kreowski has said he’d support updating city infrastructure to enhance water supplies.
All of the candidates mentioned downtown revitalization as part of their vision. The City Council in June approved a strategic plan that will guide change downtown, though individual projects and ideas still must be approved.
Guthrie criticized the council for not making improvements sooner. “The downtown has been neglected for too many years,” she said.
Reiss said the issue has long been on her agenda, “but it takes funding and a decision on what we’re looking for, and those decisions are tough sometimes.”
Vardas said he hopes Pismo Beach doesn’t change too much but becomes more polished.
“I’m hoping there will be more development downtown and some type of structure to facilitate more parking,” he said.
Blake pointed to a city-owned lot on Dolliver Street where a parking garage could be built with some retail shops, “which would help during the dead period in winter.”
Kreowski said the city also needs to focus some attention on parking in Shell Beach. The city’s street improvement plan for Shell Beach Road, for example, may remove some parking, and some new developments have had parking requirements waived, he noted.
Higginbotham said she hopes to remove the bathrooms from their current location at the base of the pier. Her short-term vision also includes finishing streetscaping along 18 blocks of Shell Beach Road.
The new council will tentatively be sworn in at its Dec. 2 meeting.
Watch the forum
The Sept. 11 Pismo Beach City Council forum can be viewed online at http://www.pismobeach.org/657/November-4-2014-General-Municipal-Electi.